manager football


The Manager

Inside the minds of football’s leaders

Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2014 Survey identified leadership as the number one issue for companies around the world, whether they are located in developed or developing economies.

86% of survey respondents rated leadership as their priority issue, and yet only 13% agreed that their company does “an excellent job at developing leaders at all levels”. Not surprisingly, there is a higher level of intensity now being directed towards developing effective leadership capability. Channelling that focus into meaningful activity is critical, and this is hampered by the existence of so many highly-contested questions about how leaders inspire and influence those in their shadows and create a lasting legacy in their organisation.

Mike Carson, a leadership expert and former McKinsey & Company management consultant, tackles these questions and more in his new book, ‘The Manager: Inside the minds of football’s leaders’, (Bloomsbury, 2013) – an unprecedented look into the way Barclays Premier League football managers think, feel and do in one of the most highly scrutinised and high-performing environments.

Writing the book

Carson conducted in-depth interviews with over 30 Barclays Premier League football managers during the 2012/13 season. Focusing on their leadership styles and lessons learned during their extensive careers, Carson uncovered powerful themes which he sought to validate and simplify.

While the managers shared common traits such as an “unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a passion for learning, and a willingness to successfully adapt to changing times and circumstances”, it was their leadership which set them apart. Often using their own words, the end result is a practical insight into how these leaders tackled challenges faced in an abnormally high-pressure environment.


Key insights

The book is broken up into five themes: the scale of the task; creating a winning environment; delivering results; personal leadership; and the great challenges.

In each part, Carson draws parallels between the football field and the boardroom as he deep dives into specific challenges faced by leaders in any field. This note identifies three book highlights of relevance to any leader.

1.  Lead from the shadows: behind the scenes

Humans are like icebergs. First, there is our behaviour, the things we say and do, which appear above water and are visible to those around us. As we move below the surface, we meet our mindsets. This is a huge part of who we are, representing the way we think, feel, need and fear. As we near the bottom of the iceberg at the extreme depths of the ocean, we arrive at what drives us – our values and beliefs.

Most leaders focus on behaviours when attempting to guide their people to great outcomes. However Carson highlights that creating a shift in individuals and teams requires leaders to focus on emotions, values, aspirations, needs and fears below the surface.

Arsène Wenger, the longest serving Barclays Premier League manager and current Arsenal manager, sees himself as a guide.

A guide is someone who leads people somewhere. That means he has to identify what he wants in a clear way, convince everybody else that is where we go together and then try to get the best out of each individual. Overall, if you want to be a guide you have to question yourself, be somebody who can get the best out of people, and be convincing.

There are six lessons coming from the ‘guiding managers’:

a.  Think first of the root causes, not the behaviour itself – dive below the surface of the iceberg

b.  Work with people on an emotional level – a powerful driver of behaviour

c.  Establish your own values – walk the talk as strong principles are infectious in an organisation

d.  Know your own motivation and seek it in others – those who share a belief are drawn to each other

e.  Address deep needs head-on – creating a sense of belonging and fulfilment will reach below the surface and     inspire loyalty

f.  Set clear boundaries and empower people to live within them.

2. Lead to inspire: building high-performing teams.

You’re only as strong as your weakest link. In order to deliver in an increasingly demanding environment, building, nurturing and sustaining a high-performing team is essential. The great leaders will admit to the gravity of the task at hand and admit they need the full support of a high-performing team.

Sam Allardyce, current Manager of West Ham United, perceives his role as a battle: “We had our dreams [at Bolton] and our war room; and we established a siege mentality, with an aim to break out of the championship while everyone was trying to stop us. We turned the challenge to our own advantage, and the confidence of the club grew.”

Carson finds that the high-performing managers create a high-performing team which they intrinsically trust to deliver in the complex and changing environment.

In order to achieve this, four tasks were uncovered:

a.  Understand the nature of the battle and the need for close allies

b.  Create a high-performing leadership team – A group of eight to ten ‘allies’ who can support and challenge a leader and carry their leadership philosophy to the front line

c.  Build the environment for success – In football leaders can have real impact in three core areas of challenge: complexity (problem-solving leadership), technology change (expert leadership) and people (values-ba sed leadership). Focusing on these areas help create an environment for success. In business, this may translate to strategy, operations, IT and HR

d.  Create the high-performing playing team itself – there are seven critical principles identified when leaders model and coach behaviours and mindsets in order to create a high-performing team: collective belief, selflessness, excellence, motivation, personal commitment, clarity and positive response to pressure.

3.  Lead to influence: handling outrageous talent

Leaders will inevitably come up against genius, especially in a high-performing environment. Genius will excite leaders – but it also poses unpredictable challenges including an imbalance in the relationship; capacity to damage themselves or others; pressure in living up to expectations; and maintaining stability. These challenges call for thoughtful and strong leadership.

José Mourinho, the current manager of Chelsea, believes symbolic actions are critical to creating balance when handling outrageous talent:

You travel in business class where everybody goes in business class, or if there is no space for everybody, then the players go in business class and you go in economy class with your staff.

In addition to creating balance, the book identifies five key principles to consider when handling outrageous talent:

a.  Embrace the talent

b.  Know your job and know your man – understanding your team member enables you to motivate them while also earning respect and admiration

c.  Offer friendship – regard your team as peers

d.  Focus on the team – helping your star player to focus on the needs of the team transfers the spotlight away from the individual and back to the team

e.  Do it all with humility.


‘Diversity of thought’ is a hot topic at the moment, and highlights that people’s backgrounds, cultures, experiences and networks bring a different perspective to the table. It’s therefore critical for leaders to not only draw on the experience and expertise of those in the corporate world, but to also explore leadership styles, techniques and experiences of those in other industries.

‘The Manager: Inside the minds of football’s leaders’ provides business leaders with a fascinating insight into the diverse leadership styles and techniques used in a very unique environment. The book provides business leaders with practical insights on how they can inspire and influence those in their shadows and create a lasting legacy.

‘The Manager: Inside the minds of football’s leaders’ is available from Bloomsbury Publishing:

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